Antisemitism: an intimate domination – Brigitte Stora –

In 2016 my book “Que sont mes amis devenus”, “What have my friends become”, was published. It was an essay written in the first person that told of the long Jewish loneliness, during the 2000s, especially for those who came from the left. After this book, I decided to continue my reflection on antisemitism, which I enrolled in the psychoanalysis department of Paris 7. I defended a PhD thesis in September last year, the title was “Antisemitism: a murder of the subject and a barrier to emancipation”.

It is a transversal reflection that combines historical, psychoanalytical, philosophical and political dimensions. The precious contribution of Jewish thought has served me as a guiding thread in this discussion.

 A book based on this thesis will be published next year, the following reflection is an unlikely summary…

My reflection started from a question. What is the so-called “Jewish domination” which is undoubtly the central, the recurring theme common to all anti-Semites?

And my hypothesis; the “Jewish domination may be one and the same thing with the radical refusal of the other, which is another name for the subject’s evasion of responsibility,

This refusal of otherness translated into politics is a formidable barrier to emancipation. (and the history of antisemitism follows the history of the defeats of emancipation).

Anti-Semitism may be that, a refusal of any exile, of any shift, of any individual and collective emancipation.

What is antisemitism ? How to recognise it in order to fight it ?

It seems to me that it is enough to listen to its speech. So I wondered why so little of the antisemitic discourse is listened to. Because antisemitism is first of all a discourse, a language that many people use, sometimes without realizing they do, and that is being spoken again and again almost all over the world. The idea of global Jewish conspiracy to rule the world is the central and structural theme of every antisemitism.

 Despite the longevity of this phantasm, despite the constancy of antisemitic propaganda from the 19th century to the present day, through the press, caricatures, posters showing the Jew holding the world in his hands, despite the eloquent titles of every antisemitic literature, until the planetary and constantly renewed diffusion of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, relayed by thousands of conspiracy sites, this nodal dimension of antisemitism is always curiously evaded. As if it was inaudible. Yet this murderous myth of the “Jewish conspiracy”, which makes antisemitism a legitimate defence against this threat, is at the heart of antisemitic discourse, whatever its political, cultural or religious declinations. Extreme right and Islamists claim the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

This single and same antisemitic discourse is curiously dodged, masked, bypassed by the proponents of the “new antisemitism”. it seems to me that this cryptic word for Muslim antisemitism and left-wing antisemitism has often pushed back the reflection on antisemitism itself, allowing the latter to take a final evasive step. Thus, many conferences, seminars and forums aimed at denouncing it, have been more interested in with the new speakers than in the very old language they speak.      

Concerning anti-Zionism, it seems to me that when the latter borrows the imaginary, references and words of anti-Semitism then it is no longer anti-Zionism but anti-Semitism.

I can personally understand that Zionism is experienced by the Palestinians as their adversary. They have some historical reasons to think so. But I cannot accept that it is the enemy of the human race. Again, one has only to listen to the anti-Semitic discourse about world domination to recognize this.

The Stalinists were those who masked their anti-Semitic hatred behind an “anti-Zionist” discourse. And we must remember this history and this sad legacy still alive. I believe that we must also be careful not to consent to the manipulation of the Israeli extreme right, which deems any criticism of its policies “anti-Semitic”, re-enacting the Stalinist imposture “in reverse” rather than denouncing it.

The left has not been up to the task of solidarity with the Jews, and a large part of the extreme left has been a complicit to it. You had the bitter experience in Great Britain with Corbyn. This fight against anti-Semitism, orphaned, was taken up by the conservative right, which saw in it, the opportunity to embark the Jewish name in its Christian West identity crusade fighting new barbarities. This manipulation of the denunciation of antisemitism as a new argument against the left and Islam must, in my opinion, be firmly rejected.

It is not only an offence to the ethics of Judaism, and a betrayal of Jewish history, but it also constitutes a formidable threat to the Jews by isolating them, but above all, by fixing them precisely where the antisemitic imagination has always assigned them. Unlike the antisemitic fantasy, the Jewish name is not synonymous with domination but with otherness, and therefore it is also one of the conditions for emancipation.

In my opinion, there is only one way to refuse the terrible competition of racism and antisemitism and the abject idea, wherever it comes from, of a ‘dangerous’ brief overshadowing others. This only way is to impose everywhere the indefectible link of the fight against antisemitism and all racisms.

This is my initial political position but perhaps also the result of my research, and the basis of my hypothesis. The fantasy of “Jewish domination” and the spoliation of peoples that it induces was redeployed after the war as if it had not been the central argument of Nazism and as if the extermination of the Jews had not constituted its cruelest denial. For, well beyond its racial dimension, Nazi propaganda already aimed first and foremost to free itself from Jewish domination, the famous weltjudentum.

The myth of Jewish domination was the common denominator and the link between the hatred of the Rothschilds and the Judeo-Bolsheviks, which was the basis of Nazi propaganda. Today we have a new version of this with, on the far right, the idea that the Jews would be “like George Soros”, the vectors of the Great Replacement. And on the other side, there is the idea that Jews and Israel would dominate international finance and imperialism,

This myth is at the heart of Holocaust denial, Islamism, the discourse of the extreme right and its national-populist variations, but it is also very often present in most “anti-Zionist” discourse and appears as a thread in a certain decolonial or even alter-globalist discourse that emphasises “domination”, a domination that is most often abstract, and that is not afraid to place the name of Israel at its centre. All anti-Semitic discourse is conspiratorial, yet the conspiracism and antisemitism speak the same language. They share the same imaginary; the first evokes a malignant system, an evil force at the helm of humanity, regularly working for its destitution; the second whispers the name of the despoiler, of the guilty party, the one that the history of the Christian West has put in that place. The myth of Jewish domination is so powerful that it can even do without its statement. This is often the case in contemporary antisemitic prose.  The Jewish name does not need to be pronounced, it is the known guilty name that the Christian West has put at the origin of its own birth and its own misfortune… Antisemitism is not a series of prejudices, it has the force of a structure, of a world view to which it is the key. And refusing to see it, to hear it, to recognise it paradoxically demonstrates its deep-rootedness, its anchorage.

This anchoring is what allows consent to anti-Semitism, which has always in history allowed murder. This consent was present in the pro-Palestinian demonstrations but also in the Gilets jaunes (yellow vests), a large movement of social discontent, but also in the anti-vax demonstrations. Each time a minority expresses itself and a majority does not react, then responds to accusations of anti-Semitism by suspecting them each time of being on the side of power. (On the side of Israel, Privilege, the Macron government).

Whatever its speakers and the “cause” it claims to defend, the anti-Jewish discourse has been deploying a similar language and themes for centuries, even though it regularly believes it is inventing it. Thus, the idea carried by the decolonials (but not only), widely shared, that we are doing “too much with the Shoah”, is not new. The reproach that the Jews are “pulling the wool over their eyes” is linked to the founding idea of spoliation and domination. This was Stalin’s argument for banning the Black Book, in 1947 that Jewish misfortune should not be brought to light because it would “harm” others.

The discourse and influence of Stalinist antisemitism played a major role in the return to the 21st century of a very old anti-Jewish discourse, without it being identified, denounced or even recognised. This shameful Stalinist anti-Semitism often used code words that pointed to an imaginary world that had already existed. Today, as in the past, when the vocabulary is based on an imaginary world dominated by lobbies, international finance, plutocracy, globalized and evil elites, then the antisemitic language is spoken, sometimes even without the knowledge of the speaker. The late Canadian economist and historian Moishe Postone demonstrated how this was an antisemitic worldview. All these elements plead in favour of the idea of a structural antisemitism. Structural, like the oppression of women or racism.

 The American historian David Nirenberg in his remarkable “Antijudaism the western tradition” has explained how anti-Judaism was the founding idea of the Christian West and how anti-Semitism, the modern moment of this anti-Judaism, has imposed itself as a system of explanation of the world. An anti-Judaism, he writes, “rooted in the structure of Western civilisation and (which) helped its intellectuals and polemicists to explain Christian heresies, political tyrannies, medieval plagues, capitalist crises and revolutionary movements”.

A “structural” antisemitism, therefore, as one of the oldest and most powerful worldviews, having forged an imaginary and a discourse that placed the abolition of Judaism on the side of universal redemption.

 The Jew is the negative principle of the West, its reverse, its hated origin, its bad conscience perhaps

 The history of the Christian West has placed the Jews in a particularly perilous situation. Judaism has generated, in spite of itself, a religion and a civilisation which, in order to found itself, has had to borrow everything from it and, at the same time, deny it and proclaim its revocation.

 Christian civilisation was founded on the disavowal of Judaism, making the ‘Jew’ the original Other. Anti-Judaism has turned it into a guilty name, a capital Otherness, both intimate and threatening. Can we understand anti-Semitism as an eternally renewed denial of the Other in itself, of debt and of origin?

In the early 2000s, the violent eruption of antisemitism on the political scene had an impact on each of our lives. For my part, I wanted to understand this “return” but also to get closer to this Judaism that was always so obsessively targeted… I studied the Bible, the commentaries and the Jewish thought and philosophy that, in a certain way, was its heir. This thought of the unfinished and of vulnerability, which places the ethics of responsibility before ontology, appeared to me as, a luminous consolation in the face of the melancholy that was winning over us. These thoughts said that the hatred of the Other, of which anti-Semitism is one of the proper names, is always an intimate defeat and that the murder of the Other passes through the abolition of the self. For in the biblical narrative, it is the encounter with the Other that creates the possibility of becoming a subject, it is the Other that is at the origin of his emancipation. There is the Other at the origin, human freedom itself is of divine origin, it remains a debt of humanity. The Torah repeats it thirty-six times: “You shall love the stranger as yourself, for you were a stranger in the land of Egypt”. This Other who summons us is not an external and coercive authority; it is the memory of having the “Other” in oneself and of having been this “stranger” for the Other that forges the responsibility of the biblical subject. The Other is a breach in oneself, a bearer of life, and it is always advisable to be wary of the dangerous totality; Sholem, Rosenzweig, Levinas, Buber, Jankélévitch and so many others, each in their own way, have developed this.

But in the watermark of their writings, it seemed to me that it was also the anti-Semite that I found. Like a reverse, a denial of this ethic. Lurking in the shadow of all these thoughts, in ambush in front of the biblical narrative that haunts him and that he never ceases to reject, the anti-Semite firmly refused to be exiled from the Garden of Eden, to “leave his origin” like Abraham, to cross the Red Sea, to leave “the land of slavery”… If anti-Semitism was built on the basis of the rejection of Judaism, it is possible that Judaism itself was built on the basis of its rejection. I wondered if the anti-Semite, was not a convincing figure of the idolatry that the god of Israel never stops fighting. With its passion for the same, for the undifferentiated Grant All, its fear of contamination, its evasion which it nevertheless sees as spoliation, antisemitism is probably an idolatry…

An idolatry which is not only made up of irrational passions, fears or pagan survivals, but which resembles above all a stubborn refusal of any exile from oneself, linked to a fervent aspiration to coincide with oneself, without fault or debt. A coincidence where the Other is not. Otherness in itself is the refusal and impossibility of this coincidence, the Other symbolises this flaw in the being as an obstacle to its omnipotence, its narcissistic self and its sufficiency. It is the place of lack but also of desire, the possibility, as Levinas wrote, of accessing a ‘more than oneself’, that is to say, transcendence. And it is this singular human subject, freed from the illusion of totality and eternity, that can be worthy of an alliance with the divine.

In my thesis and the forthcoming book, I have analysed three dimensions which seem to me, to be the principal modalities of the welcoming of the other. Name, debt and desire. These three dimensions are regularly present in the anti-Semitic discourse, which opposes a triple refusal; refusal of the name, through anonymity, refusal of desire through the enjoyment and the refusal of lack, and refusal of the debt, by getting out of debt, by evasion. The debt to the Jews linked to the origin and the Bible having been reiterated by the Shoah, antisemitism related to guilt hatred was called by the Germans secondary antisemitism.

This intimate conviction which links ethics and otherness is not unique to Judaism. Recalling the words of his philosophy teacher, Frantz Fanon, psychiatrist and pro independence activist  said : “When you hear bad things said about the Jews, listen carefully, they are talking about you”. This is a reminder of fraternity and a warning against hatred and withdrawal. But beyond this precious message, what is this “you”, this “self” that we hear? Is there a “Jew” in each of us? Does the ethics summoned through the injunction to “listen carefully” have anything to do with its reception?

Of course, we must always “listen carefully “when we speak ill of the Other, whoever that Other may be. It is not possible to consent to the “evil” that targets foreigners, women and all those who are decreed “different” without feeling at the same time that defeat of the soul which, targeting some, defeats all the others. To turn a deaf ear to the racism that is on the rise, to the abandonment of refugees, to the drownings in the Mediterranean, is it not always a case of forgetting that one was once a “foreigner in Egypt”?

Any refusal of the Other is a resignation of the subject, of oneself, and anti-Semitism is perhaps one of the most convincing illustrations of this. But the Jewish Other is a “Super Other” because it is an original Other, another that obliges…Is it not the “face of the Other” of which Levinas speaks, this obligation that it imposes on us but also this transcendence of being that it allows, that the antisemite refuses through the figure of the “Jew”? 

If anti-Judaism has made the Jew the great Other of its history, this obsessive detestation also seems to testify to the intimate link between the subject and the Other. The Other, however, to whom one must respond in order to become someone… It also underlines the link between evasion, this refusal of courage which is the condition of all emancipation.

Brigitte Stora

Sociologist by training, then journalist for the press and television. Author of historical documentaries and radio dramas (France Culture, France Inter). Author of the book: “Que sont mes amis devenus: les Juifs, Charlie, puis tous les nôtres” (Ed. Le Bord de l’Eau) published in 2016. Doctor (PhD) in psychoanalysis, thesis defended on 20 September 2021 at the University of Paris Diderot entitled: ” L’antisémitisme : un meurtre du sujet et un barrage à l’émancipation “. (Antisemitism: a murder of the subject and a barrier to emancipation).

The image is from Wikimedia Commons.

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